The period in Francis Bacon’s life between 1933 and 1944 remains a mystery. We know who he was seeing and where he was living. We know what he painted: in 1933, when he was 23, his Crucifixion that looks like an X-ray; eleven years later, the contortions of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. But what was going on in his mind is a matter for speculation. In October 1940, his asthma exacerbated by the dust from the bombing, he left London and moved to a cottage in Hampshire, in a village called Steep, where he lived for two years. Andrew Sinclair, in Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times (1993), includes a few sentences on his stay. Daniel Farson, in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (also 1993), gives it a passing reference. Michael Peppiatt, in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (2008), gives the year of Bacon’s departure for the cottage as 1942, adding: ‘The enforced idleness, free of wartime anxieties and the distractions of London, served as a catalyst to his real ambitions. The unfulfilled artist in Bacon, who was now in his early thirties, returned with a vengeance, forcing him to think in terms of the images he wanted to paint.’
In their new biography, which is nearly as long as the other three put together, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan devote nine pages to the time Bacon spent outside London. Like previous biographers, they are hampered by lack of evidence, so they have to improvise. ‘Silence can be a great surprise,’ they write. ‘Day after day of silence. No ordinary city sounds in Steep, but also no thump-thump-thump of anti-aircraft guns. No clattering crash of a nearby explosion. No wailing chorus of sirens, no choking clouds of dust, no corpses pulled from the rubble.’ And not much information on what Francis Bacon was doing.
It’s possible that he was idling. The four paintings that survive from these two years were all ‘revisited before being abandoned’. Bacon must have read, but the only volume that can be named is W.B. Stanford’s Aeschylus in His Style: A Study in Language and Personality. There are no diaries, no letters, no memoirs, scant references to this period in interviews. And yet, within a year of leaving the village, Bacon painted, as though out of the blue, the astonishing triptych that made his reputation. Something must have been going on.
‘The critical moments in an artist’s life,’ the new biographers write,
which rarely occur in public, usually consist of internal reckonings. Often, a period of soul-racking pressure – of loss and failure – yields a clearer view of art and, possibly, a transformation of spirits. Bacon hardly ever spoke of Steep … His silence was eloquent … It was likely that during the two years in Steep the ‘shambly’ Bacon took stock, recasting himself as the powerful figure the world has come to know.
On the other hand, it’s just as likely that nothing at all happened. Bacon was not actually alone. He was accompanied, as always, by his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. His lover Eric Hall, who was funding him, visited from time to time, and Bacon sometimes went to London, where his studio still was. The idea that two years in isolation or the sense of hitting bottom can be used to explain a shift in an artist’s work is one way of filling a gap that could also be filled by suggesting that some things happen on their own, or step by step, or are inevitable. Instinct, something hidden becoming clear, one mark opening the path to another, a bright idea one morning: all these could easily be what stirred the imagination to make something new. Who can say?
It’s easy to see why Stevens and Swan want to claim a time of relative solitude as what made a difference to Bacon. They don’t deny his interest in the night, his chaos, his consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, his delight in sex, his gambling, his rudeness. But they are also determined to stress his loyalty to his mother and sisters, to friends, as well as his decency, his charm, his intelligence and, in his early life, his quietness and uncertainty. They want to rescue him from his reputation as an alarming queer by showing him to be melancholy, haunted, as solitary as he was social, with many close friendships and a few intense, complex relationships with lovers. And an artist who was exacting and ambitious and uncompromising. Perhaps the most affecting sentence in this book is the last: ‘In the morning, work.’
Francis Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909. His father, who had been in the army and dealt in horses, was irascible. He took a dim view of his second son. ‘Like many fathers of the time, the Major tried to punish, shame and force the weakness out of his sickly second son.’ Later, Bacon enjoyed telling stories about the ghastliness of his upbringing, announcing that ‘the Major ordered the grooms to give him a thrashing’ or that a maid, whenever her boyfriend called, would ‘march Francis into a cupboard and, indifferent to his screams, shut him in the darkness for long periods’. This experience, he thought, ‘made him’. His father, he said, ‘didn’t love me and I didn’t love him either … It was very ambiguous though, because I was sexually attracted to him.’ Bacon ‘sometimes suggested he was raped, as if the grooms had stood him up against the coarse barn door’.
Bacon’s upbringing was certainly far from ideal – he received only a rudimentary formal education – but it may be that the stories he told about it in later years were a way of amusing himself and others. They also give biographers an excuse for connecting the childhood to the work. Sinclair reports that Caroline Blackwood was told ‘by a homosexual friend of Bacon’s that he had admitted to being systematically and viciously horsewhipped by the Irish grooms in front of the father he feared and loved’. Peppiatt, who uses the same source, writes: ‘If indeed his father, to whom he was sexually drawn, ordered and witnessed the floggings carried out by the grooms, themselves a source of erotic excitement, then the complexity of emotion – of pain, thrill and humiliation – is sufficiently extreme to make any later violence, in life or on the canvas, almost too easy to explain.’ Stevens and Swan are not to be outdone: ‘What was certain was that some volatile sexual compound – father, groom, animal, discipline – gave Francis a physical jolt that helped make him into the painter Francis Bacon.’
Bacon left home when he was sixteen. ‘Did his father suddenly banish him for trying on his mother’s silky underthings?’ Stevens and Swan ask. ‘That was a story Bacon later told, and he had a taste for women’s undergarments.’ Peppiatt even has a date for the event, the summer of 1926, and has Bacon being caught by his father ‘admiring himself in front of the mirror’. Stevens and Swan are less credulous about Bacon’s claim that his parents had ‘sold’ him to an older man, Cecil Harcourt-Smith, who took him to Berlin. But he did visit Berlin with Harcourt-Smith in the spring of 1927. He was excited by the city itself but not by German art: ‘It always had too much of a story to tell,’ he said. In Paris and Chantilly, however, where he spent the next year and a half, he saw paintings that would stay with him. Picasso’s work, he said, left him ‘stunned’, and there was Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents, with its mother vainly trying to protect her son from one of King Herod’s soldiers, her mouth ‘torn open in a scream’.
Bacon said little about his time in and around Paris, but it allowed him to learn the language and make useful connections. At the end of 1928 he moved to London, where he grew close to a number of older, cultivated gay men who often paid for him, supplementing the allowance he received from his mother. Eric Allden, who gets only passing mentions in the other biographies, emerges in Stevens and Swan’s book as an important early friend with an important private income. He and Bacon, and, it seems, Bacon’s old nanny, moved in together in October 1929. Stevens and Swan have made judicious use of Allden’s diaries to show that the two men spent their time in galleries and the theatre rather than bars and nightclubs. Bacon took Allden to see ‘certain pictures in the Tate Gallery’, including Stanley Spencer’s Christ Carrying the Cross and The Resurrection, Cookham. In his early twenties, Bacon was working sporadically as an interior designer but also drawing and painting, according to Allden, ‘in his own peculiar modern style’. His earliest surviving works, which Allden bought, have traces of Cubism, de Chirico and Léger. In 1930, he and Allden took a trip to Germany to see the Passion Play at Oberammergau; he was impressed by the moment when the cross was lifted at twilight.
At this stage Bacon took his work as a designer more seriously than his painting, and he opened a showroom in South Kensington to display his rugs and furniture. Rab Butler, then a young MP, and his wife, Sydney Courtauld, Samuel Courtauld’s daughter, commissioned him to design their dining room. Interior design led to a growing circle of acquaintance, including with the Australian painter Roy de Maistre. In his memoir, Patrick White remembers de Maistre as ‘a snob’ who ‘enjoyed a princess’:
In Eccleston Street, in the de Maistre studio-salon, I met other more or less important people, among them Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, as well as Douglas Cooper … I got to know Francis when he designed some furniture for my Eccleston Street flat. I like to remember his beautiful pansy-shaped face, sometimes with too much lipstick on it … In those days Francis was living at the end of Ebury Street … He had an old nanny who used to go out shoplifting whenever they were hard up and as lover there was an alderman.
The alderman was Eric Hall, who became another of Bacon’s financial supporters.
One of the best sources for Bacon’s thinking in these years is the diary of his cousin Diana Watson, who saw him regularly in London. ‘At tea,’ she wrote, Bacon ‘said he could not get away from the Crucifixion idea – that he never really wanted to do anything else’. She referred to it as his ‘frightful Crucifixion complex’. His only training as an artist seems to have come in the form of advice from de Maistre, who, Bacon later said, ‘taught him how to lay paint on canvas. Not how to paint paint, but how to actually control the paint [on] the canvas.’ None of his works from 1931 or 1932 survives – but then, in 1933, he painted his Crucifixion, with the Christ figure as chalky spectre against a dark cross. It caught the attention of the critic Herbert Read, who reproduced it in Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture, published that year, alongside Picasso’s Female Bather with Raised Arms. (The reproduction ‘made such an impression on me and so many others of my generation’, John Richardson later wrote.) The painting was shown in a Mayfair gallery, where it was bought by Michael Sadler, whose collection included work by Kandinsky, Rouault and Modigliani. Bacon’s next ambitious work was called Wound for a Crucifixion. John Russell described it as being ‘set in a hospital ward … On a sculptor’s armature was a large section of human flesh: a specimen wound.’ It didn’t sell, so Bacon took it home and destroyed it, something he would continue to do throughout his life. This time, he regretted the loss: ‘I may never be able to get it again.’
Before returning to London from his village retreat, Bacon made his preparations. In 1943, he wrote to Graham Sutherland, one of the most famous English artists of the moment:
I have been meaning to write to you for ages to know how you and Kathleen are. If you are ever in London now will you both come and have some dinner with me one night … I still know one or two places where the food is not too bad. I hope you are working a lot. I must tell you how much I like some of your paintings in the National Gallery.
Sutherland introduced Bacon to collectors and galleries and other painters, even persuading Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, to visit Bacon’s studio. (‘Interesting, yes,’ Clark said. ‘What extraordinary times we live in.’) In 1945, Ben Nicholson pulled out of a planned six-artist show and Sutherland proposed that Bacon, who was quite unknown, should replace him: ‘I should really prefer Francis Bacon for whose work you know I have a really profound admiration … his recent things, while being quite uncompromising, have a grandeur and brilliance which is rarely seen in English art.’ After much prevarication, Bacon agreed to send Figure in a Landscape and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which attracted great attention. He exhibited two more paintings the following year, with one critic noting his ‘staggering virtuosity’. Yet none of the major institutions would buy the work that was offered to them. ‘The problem,’ Stevens and Swan conclude, ‘was probably the figure’s disturbing mouth.’ Bacon was dismissive of what his colleagues were producing. ‘The thing I was very shocked by,’ he wrote to Sutherland after one group show, ‘was the boring lack of reality, the lack of immediacy which we have so often talked about. I think it is also why so many Picassos are beginning to look so jaded now. It is the terrible decoration we are all contaminated by.’
Bacon began to throw money around, losing heavily at roulette. In 1947, negotiating the price of a painting, he wrote that it was ‘not a quarter of what it has cost me with gambling etc’. He went to Monte Carlo, for the casino rather than the society: he made no effort to meet grand people in the area such as Somerset Maugham, Picasso or Matisse. Bacon’s new fame and his energetic enjoyment of postwar freedom meant that he had less time for Eric Hall, the Tory councillor, who wasn’t interested in Soho pubs or edgy artists and hangers-on. Bacon had established himself in places such as the French House and the Colony Room, and he became close to Lucian Freud, thirteen years his junior. Freud bought work from Bacon, including Two Figures (1953), a depiction of two naked men on a bed passionately engaged in sex, which Freud kept opposite his own bed, generally refusing to lend it out to retrospectives. Caroline Blackwood said that when she was married to Freud in the early 1950s they ‘had lunch or dinner with Bacon almost every day’. One mutual friend found Bacon and Freud intolerable together. They were annoyingly superior, like young lovers who believe they alone knew the secret.’
Bacon and Freud both had brief affairs with the painter Michael Wishart, who watched Bacon putting on his make-up before going out. ‘Seated on the edge of his bath,’ Wishart wrote,
I enjoyed watching Francis make up his face. He applied the basic foundation with lightning dexterity born of long practice. He was more careful, even sparing, with the rouge. For his hair he had a selection of Kiwi boot polishes in various browns. He blended these on the back of his hand, selecting a tone appropriate for the particular evening, and brushed them through his abundant hair with a shoe brush. He polished his teeth with Vim. He looked remarkably young even before the alchemy.
Make-up firmly in place, Bacon went about Soho each evening insulting people and using obscene words. Stevens and Swan want to emphasise, though, that he did other things too. They write about his visiting an elderly friend of his nanny’s once a week, and remark that he was always ‘a perfect gentleman to his mother and sisters’. One of the women whose portrait Bacon painted many times was Isabel Rawsthorne, who described him as someone who ‘assiduously looked after his friends and consistently helped them exhibit’.
Late in 1949, Bacon exhibited Head VI, his version of Velásquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. The reviews managed to express both revulsion and excitement, and Wyndham Lewis made serious claims:
Of the younger painters, none actually paints so beautifully as Francis Bacon … I must not attempt to describe these amazing pictures – the shouting creatures in glass cases, these dissolving ganglia the size of a small fist in which one can always discern the shouting mouth, the wild distended eye … Bacon is one of the most powerful artists in Europe today and he is perfectly in tune with his time.
But he was just as famous for staying out all night and saying whatever he pleased. At a party given by Viscount Rothermere and his wife in the spring of 1949, Princess Margaret took the microphone from Noël Coward and tried to sing ‘Let’s Do It’, only to be greeted by ‘a prolonged and thunderous booing’ from one of the guests. Caroline Blackwood, ‘enthralled’ by the interruption, asked the man next to her who had caused it. ‘It was that dreadful man, Francis Bacon,’ the man said. ‘He calls himself a painter but he does the most frightful paintings. I just don’t understand how a creature like him was allowed to get in here. It’s really quite disgraceful.’
The following year Bacon gave his own party at his studio, to celebrate Michael Wishart’s marriage to his friend Anne Dunn. The party went on for two days and was, John Richardson reports,
slightly presided over by the nanny, the blind nanny, who would be in the rocking-chair at the back of the studio … My mother had a house around the corner so I used to come and go at the party. I would stay for eight hours, then go home and collapse and sleep it off and then rejoin the party.
In his memoirs, Wishart wrote: ‘After five nights of non-stop celebrations, we left, exhausted, for Paris.’
As all this was going on, Bacon had turned the paintings he had been working on against the wall. They included his first pope paintings, a group that culminated in Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), one of the best pictures he ever made. Some of its impact comes from the stark figure, both enthroned and corralled, with his rich purple tunic and silky white skirt and sleeves. This is the pope: by rights, he should be smug-looking, or at least mildly disfigured by power. But he is letting out a scream that is both anguished and snarling; he is an animal coming towards you. The real power of the painting, though, comes from the way it is painted: the skirt a set of almost random brush strokes, the figure oddly embedded in the curtain that might be supposed to hang behind him. The curtain is indicated by a set of vertical lines that make no effort to disguise themselves as anything other than paint, and the lines fan out at the bottom of the canvas in a display of pure painterly style. Praising the work of Matthew Smith, Bacon spoke of Smith’s ‘complete interlocking of image and paint’, that ‘the brushstroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in.’
In the early 1950s Bacon had no fixed address. And he was broke. He was living what Stevens and Swan call ‘an almost feral life’ when he met Peter Lacy. Lacy was handsome, six years younger than Bacon and played the piano in nightclubs. He ‘had no interest in the literary or art world,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘He did not conceal his dislike for Bacon’s paintings. In fact, his indifference constituted for Bacon part of Lacy’s standoffish appeal.’ They fought a great deal – Lacy ‘wanted to have me chained to the wall’, Bacon told Michael Peppiatt – but Stevens and Swan call the relationship ‘the most important in each man’s life’. Hilariously, they write: ‘Sexual violence was not healthy, of course, but “healthy” was not the point for Bacon and Lacy, two homosexuals who grew up in difficult closeted homes.’
Bacon spent a great deal of time with Lacy in Tangier and the South of France, where they met a number of writers. Allen Ginsberg described Bacon as ‘a great English painter … who looks like an overgrown seventeen-year-old schoolboy … wears sneakers and tight dungarees and black silk shirts … like[s] to be whipped and paints mad gorillas in grey hotel rooms drest in evening dress with deathly black umbrellas’. We have many versions of the rows between Bacon and Lacy, some of them from Bacon himself, but it’s harder to find evidence for the parts of their private lives that might have been easy, relaxed, casual and unferal. Lacy died in May 1962, the day of the private view of Bacon’s first big retrospective at the Tate. Aftewards, Bacon painted a small triptych called Study for Three Heads, with two images of Lacy on either side of a self-portrait. He also made a large-scale portrait.
In one of his greatest paintings, Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), he recorded the place he associated with Lacy. It is a landscape alive with brushwork that looks as though it has suffered radiation, or a fierce storm. As with many of the figure paintings, there is no hinterland or context. It is as if the painting were a glass case and the land inside a specimen. Nonetheless, it is clearly a landscape: there is grass, or scrub, and a tree, and yellow sand. Above the horizon there is a black sky, though sharp light illuminates the landscape itself. At the very centre of the painting black paint rises like a flapping, swirling creature with another amorphous daub below it. ‘What they surely represent,’ the catalogue raisonné notes, ‘is the spirit of the dead Lacy.’ ‘People say you forget about death but you don’t,’ Bacon said. ‘Time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work.’
Since Bacon was known for his tangled personal life, his gambling, his drinking and the chaos of his studio, with the stories of his sexual habits and ghastly Irish childhood in circulation, something needed to be done to explain that his paintings were not just garish expressions of his own neuroses. David Sylvester and Michel Leiris, who both wrote perceptively about his work, emerged as friends and champions. As early as 1951, Sylvester asserted that Bacon was ‘the major English artist of his time’. He soon had access to Bacon’s studio and saw paintings before anyone else did. In 1953, he bought Study for a Portrait on the spot, selling it later to one of Bacon’s dealers. Sylvester was practised at making eloquent, high-toned, oracular statements and, spurred on by John Berger’s contrary judgments, applied this skill to Bacon: ‘In these claustrophobic curtained settings, there loom up before us beings whose shadowy, ambiguous, unexpected presence takes command of any setting they survey, making real beings seem like shadows. They are as appalling as they are compelling, for these are creatures faced with their tragic destiny.’
Sylvester recorded nine interviews with Bacon between 1962 and 1986, in which Bacon appears as serious-minded and scrupulously intelligent. (‘Sylvester was always very good at making me feel that what I was saying was interesting,’ Max Porter has Bacon muse in his new short book, The Death of Francis Bacon, which imagines the artist’s mind as he lies dying in a clinic in Madrid in April 1992.) Interviews with Francis Bacon is at its most absorbing when Sylvester’s questions are longer than Bacon’s answers, but there are occasions when Bacon’s crankiness and his high ambition outdo the questioner. ‘I would loathe my paintings to look like chancy abstract expressionist paintings,’ he responded to one suggestion of Sylvester’s, ‘although I don’t use highly disciplined methods of constructing it. I think the only thing is that my paint looks immediate.’
Neither of the tutelary spirits of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, had any interest in Bacon, and the lack of interest went both ways. When the Whitechapel Gallery put on a Jackson Pollock show in 1959 and the Tate staged its New American Painting a few months later, Bacon was curious only to meet Willem de Kooning, though he found him ‘unforthcoming’. On his first trip to New York, almost a decade later, Bacon was introduced to Pollock’s nephew and said: ‘You mean, she’s the niece of the old lace maker?’ He had no respect for Larry Rivers either: ‘She’s simply not a deep-end girl like myself, dear, she’s minnying along the sidewalk of life.’ Nor did he care much for British abstract painting. Having spent time in St Ives, he wrote: ‘This is a stronghold of really dreary abstract stuff, and they are all fanatical about it. I can’t tell you how bad it all is.’
In the early 1960s, Bacon hung out with many posh people and a few nasty pieces of work – but no one much in between. Cecil Beaton thought he was ‘one of the most interesting, refreshing and utterly beguiling people. He is wise and effervescent and an inspired conversationalist.’ Ann Fleming reported on a dinner with Bacon in August 1959, when it turned out that he was supposed to be on a date with ‘a Ted at Piccadilly Circus’. She suggested that Bacon bring this Ted along, but was ‘warned by Cecil that he was known to be equipped with bicycle chains and razor blades and though worshipped by masochistic Francis was a danger to normal mortals’. A decade later, when Bacon bought a house in Limehouse, he said: ‘I have bought the house in which I shall be murdered.’
There are different accounts of how Bacon met George Dyer late in 1963. One is that Dyer, a rather good-looking cat burglar from the East End of London, fell through Bacon’s skylight like a gift from heaven, and that Bacon threatened to call the police if Dyer didn’t have sex with him. They are more likely to have met in a bar or a club. According to Freud, Bacon was pleased when Dyer, unlike other such visitors to his quarters, didn’t steal anything from him but presented him with ‘an enormous gold watch which he’d stolen the night before’. He began to paint Dyer soon after their first meeting. ‘Bacon never tired of looking at him,’ Stevens and Swan write.
He was beautifully but also naturally formed. His muscles were not gym-made but came from years of manual work, and perhaps some schoolboy boxing. Since Bacon could not always find George when he wanted him to model, he commissioned John Deakin to take some photographs of George stripped to his [under]pants, which revealed his musculature. George found the pictures embarrassing, a bit like dirty postcards.
Bacon did more than twenty portraits of him.
Bacon became a creature of habit during his years with Dyer. He often had breakfast with Freud before spending the morning at work in the studio. He went into Soho for lunch. He liked to have sex in the afternoon. In the evening he went gambling. His paintings were beginning to make a lot of money. Stevens and Swan are alert to the problem of what to do about gay relationships that are known to be difficult, even tragic, such as Bacon’s with Lacy and Dyer. They quote a letter from Dyer to Bacon, written from Scotland, where he had gone to dry out in October 1965:
I try so hard not to think of you, as it makes me unhappy not to be with you. I do hope you can stay away from Soho just for me, as it always seems to lead to disaster, perhaps more me than you. It is rather cold here at the moment, but I suppose this is to be expected. Well my dear Francis, I do hope you are happy and well. Write soon and thank you very much for ringing me. All my love. As Oscar Wilde said, please believe me. Yours, George.
The relationship gradually deteriorated, partly because Dyer had nothing to do except wait for Bacon to come drinking with him – partly because, Stevens and Swan suggest, he had ‘lost his self-respect when he gave up his profession as a burglar’. Freud told William Feaver, his biographer: ‘It was awfully tragic, really. Francis stopped fancying him and George was in love with him. Francis got him these marvellous – horrible – grand flats, but [George] wanted to be with him.’
Bacon’s painting was being taken more and more seriously by other artists, including Alberto Giacometti, whom he called ‘the most marvellous of human beings’. They spent time together in 1965, when Giacometti had a retrospective at the Tate. ‘Giacometti’s gift to Bacon was Michel Leiris,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘Bacon and Leiris were natural soulmates – had either believed in the soul.’ As a friend of Leiris, Bacon was brought into the inner sanctum of the intellectual life of Paris. After Leiris published an essay about his work, Bacon responded (in French): ‘Michel, I do not know how to thank you, it is the first time that someone has explained what I intend to do, even when I fail to do it. And also, thank you for having said that I am not an expressionist.’ Leiris wrote about the stark, pitiless artificiality with which Bacon surrounded his figures. Bacon ‘usually stands the object to be painted in harsh, steady electric light or, occasionally, in clear sunlight unmitigated by anything reminiscent of the weather, so that all is exposed, as it were, to a midday glare’. He alluded to the clash between two systems in Bacon’s work: ‘a more or less marked distortion of the figures, combined with a fairly naturalistic treatment of their surroundings’. He suggested that the canvases were not just finished objects to be gazed at, like most paintings, but forms of action. ‘Bacon’s essential aim is not so much to produce a picture that will be an object worth looking at, as to use the canvas as a theatre of operations for the assertion of certain realities.’
In 1971, Bacon had a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, with 134 works on display. He went early to oversee the installation, staying with Dyer at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. Georges Pompidou, then president, was to open the show; his wife was to give a party. Friends and family had travelled to Paris. The evening of the formal opening would include a press view, a state opening, a large private view, a dinner and a party hosted by Leiris and Sonia Orwell. The night before, since he had had a row with Dyer, Bacon stayed somewhere else. In the morning, Dyer was discovered sitting on the toilet. He was dead, having taken an overdose. Bacon’s friends spoke to the hotel manager. ‘Would it be possible, they asked,’ as Stevens and Swan paraphrase it,
to postpone George’s death until the following morning? His death would otherwise dominate news of the opening. The manager, like any good hotelier, was discreet … Yes, George could wait until the morning after the formal opening. The manager went upstairs to lock the room where George sat on the loo.
There was an odd moment as Bacon and the president toured the exhibition. Pompidou ‘made a show of stopping’ in front of one particular triptych, Three Figures in a Room, recently bought by the French state. The left panel showed George Dyer, sitting on a toilet.
Over the next year or so, Bacon returned regularly to the hotel where Dyer had died, staying in the room where it happened. ‘Bacon, always a poor sleeper,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘left himself open, during this private ritual of expiation, to the night thoughts most people would do anything to avoid, enclosing himself in the ghostly room with only the vague hotel sounds to keep him company.’ After Dyer’s death, he made four large triptychs, one of which confronts the actual death, with panels of Dyer vomiting into the sink and sitting on the toilet bowl. ‘The central panel,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘depicts the moment of death, with a batlike shadow flaring out from George’s body.’ Leiris refers to these shadows in Bacon’s work as ‘an oblique intensification … a shadow taking the eminently material form of a pool or blot that seems to have been secreted by the figure, which thereby acquires greater weight’.
The shadow here is more explicit than that, however. It is more than a blob, closer to a bat or a bird of some sort. It suggests life seeping out of the body and becoming a black shape with wings. Rather than serving the dynamic needs of the picture, the black shape serves to illustrate something. For once, Bacon’s fastidiousness, his restraint, had failed him. As Stevens and Swan rightly point out, Bacon ‘usually gleefully declares that dead means dead, as in meat on the floor’. This strange and uncharacteristic ‘melodramatic spook’, this ‘batlike shadow’, is therefore ‘one of the strangest – and possibly bravest – moments in Bacon’s art’.
In 1975, Bacon had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Two hundred thousand people came to see it. Although the critic for the New York Times declared that Bacon had ‘certainly left no discernable trace on American painting’, Andy Warhol, who was at the opening, confessed that he was influenced by Bacon’s use of background colour. Leiris refers to ‘large areas [of Bacon’s canvases] treated with apparent indifference (backgrounds in flat tints)’. Bacon had mocked his own work over lunch with friends in Rome in 1973. ‘His paintings came to him relatively easily, he said, now that he rolled on the backgrounds in acrylic like any idiot. All that was necessary was to add “his gestural images, some of them from Eadweard Muybridge, some culled from medical books on plastic surgery”.’
The background in an earlier Bacon work such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a rich, garish orange, is startling for its blatant artificiality, its fearless brilliance. The problem with such effects is that they are hard to repeat. He copied that colour a great deal until it could seem like a formula, and it rarely appears in his work after 1986. But in large-scale work from the 1960s and 1970s, Bacon often manages to make it look as though the background colour came to him once more as a surprise. The flat yellow in Double Portrait of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (1964), for example, or the flat black in Triptych (1972), have freshness and sternness. In other work Bacon concentrates on the complex figure and doesn’t seem to bother much about the background.
‘Painting has nothing to do with colouring surfaces,’ Bacon said. ‘When I feel that I have to some extent formed the image,’ he told Sylvester, ‘I put the background in to see how it’s going to work and then I go on with the image itself.’ When Sylvester asked if he ever had to change the original colour of the ground, he replied: ‘I generally stay with the ground because it is extremely difficult to change it when you are using unprimed canvas.’ Bacon disliked the word ‘unconscious’, preferring the term ‘nervous system’, but it is nonetheless possible to look at these flat colours applied (‘putting the background in’) so quickly and easily as an interesting aspect of his unconscious, suggesting a pure and sleek imagination that took sensual pleasure in colour and texture, in brightness, purity and luminosity.
There were, however, paintings in which the application of the background seemed just to repeat a pattern, to be striking for its own sake. ‘Having a plain-coloured background and putting the subject matter as such on it, is, one can really say, a recipe for illustration,’ Freud told Martin Gayford. ‘Of course, the best things, when Francis worked on the whole canvas and livened it up, are very different. But when he simply put, as he did later more and more and more frequently, something onto the … canvas without it relating in any way, well of course the result was illustration.’ Bacon, in turn, had views on Freud’s work: ‘far too expressionist for my liking’, he said of Freud’s show at the Hayward Gallery in 1974. Freud claimed that when his work began selling, ‘Francis became bitter and bitchy’. In 1991, less than a year before Bacon’s death, he was at a restaurant with a friend when they saw Freud across the room. ‘Freud had a tray,’ the friend recalled, ‘and was moving in our direction. Francis said: “Don’t move. Let him come here.” Freud went right past us and went to the opposite end of the restaurant. Francis said: “That’s the way things are.”’
Bacon was often kind and considerate, as Stevens and Swan show, but there were moments when his inner bitch demanded to be noticed. In 1977 he visited the exhibition of a close friend, Denis Wirth-Miller, and, according to Wirth-Miller’s biographer,
began to rock back and forth. The guests waited respectfully to hear his opinion. Bacon stopped rocking on his heels and started laughing. For the next ten minutes, he went around the exhibition, stopping to laugh, gesticulate and insult various works – even though he was acutely familiar with the psychological crisis his friend had endured in relation to his work. Wirth-Miller’s friends and neighbours looked on in shock.
If some of the late triptychs display tiredness, or barely escape self-parody, this never happened to the portraits, especially the smaller ones, and especially the self-portraits, which only became more intense and touching. Leiris describes the subjects losing ‘their bone structure to become strange fluxes and whorls of matter in fusion’. ‘As a portraitist,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote,
Bacon is a painter of heads, not faces, and there is a great difference between the two. The face is a structured, spatial organisation that conceals the head, whereas the head is dependent upon the body, even if it is the point of the body in culmination … Bacon thus pursues a very peculiar project as a portrait painter: to dismantle the face, to rediscover the head or make it emerge from beneath the face.
It mattered that Bacon mostly painted people to whom he was close. During the last years of his life, one of his main subjects was John Edwards, whom he met in the Colony Room in 1976. ‘Francis fell for John in a minute,’ a friend of Edwards’s said. ‘He was breathtakingly handsome … exuded strength. He was very reliable, like a rock. Very strong.’ The first paintings where Edwards is named as the subject were done in 1980, and they remained close; Edwards inherited Bacon’s estate. But there were other subjects too, including José Capelo, a businessman living in South Kensington whom Bacon met in 1987, when Capelo was 31. Capelo remained a discreet presence, referred to only as Bacon’s ‘young Spanish friend’ by Peppiatt and ‘his Spanish banker’ by Sinclair. Farson describes him, again without naming him, in a photograph which Bacon showed him: ‘one of those Spaniards with tawny-coloured hair and blue eyes … the Nietzsche of the football team’. During the first nine months of 1990, Bacon embarked on at least eight substantial trips across the Channel, usually with Capelo, who took a sabbatical from his work to spend more time with Bacon. When Capelo sometimes insisted on paying a restaurant bill, ‘it was,’ Stevens and Swan write, ‘a novel experience for Bacon, who had hardly let a dinner bill escape his hands for decades.’
In Madrid, Bacon found a venue that he made into his headquarters. This was Bar Cock, near Gran Vía. ‘The cocktails were smart, the bar mirrored, the lighting dusky,’ Stevens and Swan write. ‘Green leather banquettes and red leather club chairs – brass studs and wooden arms – provided a clubby familiarity. The art world liked it.’ Bacon and Capelo would arrive at 8.30 or 9, just the two of them. The owner came to know them. At their favourite table, or at the bar, they would have three dry martinis. Then at 10.30 or 11, they would go and have dinner. ‘Sometimes,’ the owner said, ‘he’d order champagne for them both. He’d come Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Two or three times a week. Not on Friday or Saturday. And never after dinner.’ Bacon usually wore ‘white linen with a closed shirt’, she said. He was ‘very much of a gentleman’.
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